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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Explained: Why was there a delay in counting of votes in Bihar amid Covid-19?

In the EVM era, poll trends are often clear by afternoon. How are votes counted, and what was different in Bihar that delayed the results this time? What are the rules for a recount, as demanded by some parties?

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi | Updated: November 11, 2020 7:31:26 am
bihar election result, bihar election results, counting of votes, evms, bihar election and covid, coronavirus pandemic, Bihar Election result covid impact, indian express newsCounting of votes in progress for the Bihar Assembly Election results, at a counting center in Chhapra, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (PTI Photo)

On Tuesday, counting of votes for the Bihar election took unusually long by today’s standards. During the paper ballot era, the Election Commission (EC) would take up to 48 hours to announce results. But since the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in the early 2000s, results have started coming in the same day. Now, winning leads are usually evident by the afternoon with experts and news channels calling elections in the late afternoon.

Given the rapidness of recent election results, the delay in counting of votes in Bihar on Tuesday has piqued everyone’s interest. By 2 pm, the EC had counted roughly 1.5 crore (or one-third) of the total 4.10 crore votes polled.

By 5.30 pm, the poll panel had completed counting two-thirds of the votes. This is considered unusually slow.

Bihar election results: What explains the unusually slow counting?

The Election Commission attributed the delay to an increase in the number of EVMs deployed as part of Covid-19-related precautions. To maintain social distancing, the Commission had capped the maximum number of voters per booth at 1,000 — down from 1,500 in 2015. This prompted a 63% increase in the number of polling stations — from 65,367 in 2015 to 1,06,526.

More polling stations means more EVMs. And more EVMs, in turn, mean more rounds of counting and a longer wait for the final result. One round of counting usually lasts about 20 to 30 minutes. On average, each constituency in Bihar had 35 rounds of counting scheduled on Tuesday, as opposed to 24 in the pre-Covid era.

It is this that caused counting to be slower than usual, with only two-thirds of the votes counted till 5.30 pm. Interestingly, there has also been an increase in the number of votes polled through postal ballots — from 1.3 lakh in 2015 to 2.5 lakh. All these reasons, along with wafer-thin margins in several seats, added to the wait.

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Many parties are asking for a recount. What is the procedure?

The penultimate round of EVM counting doesn’t start unless the counting of postal ballots is over. In case the victory margin is less than the total number of postal ballots received, then a re-verification is done even if no candidate or agent has asked for it. On Tuesday, the Commission referred to this instruction when asked about the request from the Left parties for a recount in three seats.

Apart from this provision, Rule 63 of the Conduct of Election Rules explicitly allows a candidate or his agent to demand a recount of postal ballots or EVM votes before the result is formally declared. The application for a partial or complete recount has to be made in writing along with strong reasons for the demand. The Returning Officer considers the grounds provided and may allow the recount in part or whole. The Returning Officer has to record her reason for both permission and rejection.

According to the EC’s former Legal Adviser S K Mendiratta, the necessity of recount has been almost eliminated with the introduction of EVMs since every vote recorded in the machine is considered valid. “Errors can only occur at the time of noting down the count by the candidate, agent to election officer. This is essentially a recheck and not recount,” he told The Indian Express.

However, the recheck of EVM votes and recounting of postal ballots can only be done before the formal declaration of results on Form 21C. After that, a candidate’s only recourse is an election petition.

Was the counting process different from counting under normal circumstances?

There has been no change in the counting process. There is, however, a change in the layout of the counting hall. The number of tables at each counting hall has been limited to seven, as opposed to 14 under normal circumstances, to follow social distancing norms. To maintain the same speed of counting (that is 14 EVMs per round), the Commission has increased the number of counting halls from 38 to 55.

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Bihar results: Was the delay anticipated?

Yes, the EC had anticipated the delay. Hence, in a break from tradition, the Commission held three press briefings on counting day in Bihar to give real-time updates on the counting process and explain the delay in the context of the extraordinary circumstances. This was also part of the poll panel’s strategy to pre-empt any political attacks on the EVMs.

The EC’s stand on the delay has been unapologetic, as it has maintained that it will prioritise accuracy over speed. In fact, during the first briefing itself at 1.30 pm on Tuesday, EC officials had announced that counting would continue late into the night.

Speaking to reporters at the second briefing on Tuesday, EC Director General Umesh Sinha said, “The emphasis of the Commission is that the procedure and guidelines related to counting and Covid-19 are to be scrupulously and sincerely followed. The Commission has directed that the counting officials need not be in a haste or hurry to declare the results and they should follow all the procedures and take as much time as it is naturally required. Considering the above facts, it is natural that it will take some more time than in normal time. You all are aware that the pandemic period is not a normal time… the results may come till late night.” 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

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Is such a delay unprecedented?

No. A delay in the final result is not unusual in case of close elections with narrow winning margins. In such cases, experts and news channels have to wait for the Commission to call the election. This last happened in 2018 during the Madhya Pradesh elections when the Congress emerged the single largest party only the next morning.

At that time, the Commission had attributed the delay to four factors — an increase in votes cast through postal ballot, mandatory tallying of EVM count with VVPAT slips, wafer-thin margins in the state, and a cautious approach adopted to avoid the embarrassment suffered during the Nagaland Assembly polls earlier that year — when a mistake made in processing the results had forced the Commission to reverse the results of the Tenning seat the day after having announced it. In counting after the Madhya Pradesh election, the Commission instructed all its Returning Officers to prioritise accuracy over speed.

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